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Fed history

Fedor Dzerzhinsky

The first 35mm camera produced in the Soviet Union was the FED. The small Leica copies were produced in F.E. Dzerzhinsky (1877-1926) children's commune in Kharkov, the then capital of Ukraine. Originally, the children's commune was a kind of educational institution for orphans, where children both learned and perform production work.
F.E. Dzerzhinsky was one of the founders of the Soviet secret police, the Cheka. The fact that such a man known as a bloodthirsty killer is associated with a children's orphanage is remarkable to say the least


The orphans

In the twenties of the last century, Russia and later also the Soviet Union had to deal with a huge number of orphaned children.

The First World War, followed by the Revolution and the Civil War, had orphaned many children. Then came the famine of 1921 and 1922. In total, about 16 million Russians lost their lives during this period. In addition, many parents had lost contact with their children. The Soviet authorities were confronted with some 7 million abandoned or orphaned homeless children, the besprizorniki, who roamed the vast country. The People's Commisariat of Education (Narkompros) in 1920 brought this huge problem to the attention of Dzerzhinsky. Dzerzhinsky was apparently moved by the misery of these millions of children and decided to use his secret police, the Cheka, to do something about the problem of these abandoned children. His arguments were that his Cheka was a very efficient organization and that people took the Cheka seriously; in other words, they were terrified of it. In early 1921, a committee to improve the lives of children was installed with Dzerzhinsky as its chairman. It caused quite a bit of unrest that precisely this man was going to improve the lives of children.

Most besprizorniki tried to survive by begging. Or by doing small jobs for everyone. But in the heavily impoverished Soviet Union that was not easy and certainly not for the huge numbers that had to survive. A large number ended up in prostitution. Inevitably, juvenile delinquency increased dramatically. Hunger and cold left few other choices open to the children.

The Soviet authorities not only wanted to (re)educate these homeless children, but they wanted to focus their education on all children in the Soviet Union by realizing a huge communist movement among young people. The People's Commissariat for Education was given the task of organizing orphanages and education for the abandoned children. The orphanages were established in a spirit of revolutionary idealism, but were soon overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem of housing and feeding all these millions.

The children's commune

The F.E. Dzerzhinsky working commune was one of the orphanages founded for the besprizorniki, the abandoned children. A certain Anton Makarenko was the first director. Makarenko devised a kind of combination of learning and working. He had already put this principle into practice in the so-called Gorky Colony. The children worked and learned under strict military discipline and competition. While conditions in the other orphanages were dramatic, the Gorky Colony was said to be doing better.

Dzerzhinsky died in 1926. In the same year, the OGPU, the successor to the Cheka, decided to establish a children's commune under his name as a tribute to Dzerzhinsky. The F.E. Dzerzhinsky children's commune. Makarenko was appointed as the first director in 1927. Under his leadership, the institute acquired such a reputation that many international visitors were shown around. Makarenko therefore received full cooperation from the authorities. The commune and the workshop were housed in new buildings. The number of orphans grew from 150 in 1927 to 600 in 1935. The children were between the ages of 13 and 17, both girls and boys.

The children were engaged in making locks, simple furniture, clothes and shoes. There was also a foundry. At first only for their own use and with the help of craftsmen from outside the commune, but soon orders came from outside the commune and the children were skilled enough to do it without outside help. The commune became a self-supporting institution. By the end of 1929, furniture production was in the thousands. The children were paid better and the commune had its own Komsomol and Pioneer organization, in which sports, drama and even photography took place.

Soviet politics

Fotokor camera

In 1928, Stalin launched his first 5-year plan. The Soviet Union changed from a peasant state to an industrial state. It was both Lenin's and Stalin's policy to make the Soviet Union a fully autarkic economy independent and isolated from the capitalist outside world.

But to do that, the Soviet Union had to first use technology from the west. They did this without the enormous costs involved in research and development. International patents were considered largely irrelevant by the Soviet authorities. This also applies to Leica's patents on all kinds of developments in camera techniques. 

The collectivization of agriculture would deprive millions of farmers of their property and many of them of their lives. Sudden changes in policy had fatal consequences for many.
The industrialization of the Soviet Union came alive during this time; also in the field of photography. The first Soviet cameras, albeit in small numbers, were produced in 1929 and 1930. More than a million of the Fotokor, a folding plate camera, were produced.

The Dzerzhinsky commune was also affected. In 1930, a faculty of the technical school in Kharkov was established on the commune to bring the students up to the entrance level of the university. The commune then set up its own fully-fledged factory. Electric hand drills were produced in a new building from 1931. Like the later cameras, this drill was also named after Felix Dzerzhinsky, the FD-1. Later followed by the FD-2 and 3 and all based on American Black & Decker machines.

The Fed I

And then in 1932 it was decided to start making cameras based on German Leicas. Sometime in June 1932, a research department for the production of Soviet Leicas was established in the commune. Both the production of the drills and the cameras had the main purpose of making the economy of the Soviet Union independent of other countries.
The first Soviet Leicas were produced in the same year. The cameras were exact copies of the Leica A, including the famous hockey stick and even including the separate rangefinder, which Leica had developed for the Leica A. These first Soviet Leicas were equipped with a 50 mm 3.5 lens made in Leningrad at VOOMP.
The Soviet Leica was a huge prestige project for the Soviet authorities. Nothing of the complexity of a Leica had ever been realized in the Soviet Union or in ancient Russia. A whole new building was even built for it, with a capacity of 30,000 cameras per year. But by the end of 1933, only 30 Leica A copies had been made.
The real Fed production began in January 1934. The name of the camera was nothing but the initials of the old director of the Cheka, F.E. Dzerzhinsky.

The lenses for these cameras were now also made on the grounds of the commune. By April 1934, however, the production of Leica A copies was discontinued and they started with copiing the Leica II with built-in a rangefinder. In the first year of production 4000 Feds were built. They were fitted with a lens that also had the name Fed engraved on it, a 50mm 3.5 lens.

An extensive text was engraved on the top plate of the camera: FED/Trudkommuna/im./F.E. Dzerzhinkogo/Kharkov. It all just barely fittrd on the small camera. The shutter speeds were the familiar range of 1/20 to 1/500 second and Z from Zeit. In the latter position, the lens remained open, so you could use shutter speeds slower than 1/20 of a second.
In 1934 a profound change in the organization of the Soviet system took place. The police tasks of the OGPU were transferred to the NKVD, the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs. And so the Dzerzhinsky commune also came directly under the NKVD. The already significant text on top of the Fed camera now became: FED/Trudkommuna/NKVD-USSR/im./F.E.Dzerzhinskogo/Kharkov. The appearance of the camera also underwent changes; there was a hot shoe, a smaller shutter speed dial and a rectangular viewfinder frame. That last detail distinguishes a Fed from a Leica II.

  • The Leica ii copy Fed. The serial number of this Fed 1 is 378562. So the camera is probably produced in 1937.

  • Shutter speeds from 1/20 to 1/500. The Fed is not an very easy camera to handle and that is because of the two windows. On the left the viewfinder to compose the image and on the richt te rangefinder window to focus.

  • The 50 mm f3.5 Fed lens. This lens is a folding lens and together with the small camera makes the camera easy to carry around. The lens is very sharp en the focusing system very precise.

From commune to factory

The Dzerzhinsky commune had grown to 600 members by 1935. Virtually every aspect of camera production was done in the commune itself. With the success came the problems. The demand for the Fed camera was high, but a good camera system requires more than just the camera. The demand for accessories such as lenses and for instance enlargers also increased and in order to meet this the organization of the commune had to be overhauled. I

In July 1935 Makarenko was relieved of his duties. Two years later, the school and the factory were separated. The factory came under the control of the NKVD and the young people who both learned and worked there were gradually replaced by 'ordinary' workers. In March 1937, the government ended the combination of learning and working across the country.
Meanwhile, the production of Fed cameras continued and in the course of 1937 more accessories were delivered, such as light meters, self timers, developing tanks, etc. Most of the accessories were also copies of Leica accessories. But there was also criticism of the high price and low quality.
In 1938, the demand for more lenses for the Feds was met. In addition to the 50mm standard lens with a maximum aperture of 3.5, there was a fast standard lens with a 2.0 aperture and new lenses such as a 28mm and a 100mm lens were produced. In addition, new models of Fed cameras had been developed with shutter speeds ranging from 1 to 1/1000 second. But few of these new types were produced.

In 1939 the Fed factory was renamed the F.E. Dzerzhinsky Kombinat. The name Kombinat was given in the Soviet Union to a large industrial complex with different sites that were responsible for the different steps in the production process. In mid-1939, the 100,000th Fed was produced. That the Fed was not the only Soviet camera is apparent from the total production figures for Sovjet cameras cameras before the war: 478,600.

The war

When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the total number of Feds produced until then was 175,000. As German forces advanced, Soviet troops evacuated industrial enterprises to places beyond the Ural Mountains. Everything they couldn't take with them was destroyed; burnt earth tactics. At the end of the war Kharkov was completely destroyed by the retreating Germans. Of the buildings of the Dzerzhinsky commune, only rubble remained.

After the war

After the war, camera production was restarted. The buildings of the former Dzerzhinsky commune were rebuilt. In 1947 the total camera production was already almost 100,000 copies. The Fed was the only pre-war Soviet camera that went back into production almost unchanged after the war. The factory's close ties to the pre-war secret police no longer seem to exist after the war.
From 1948, a second Leica II copy, the Zorki, almost identical to the Fed I, was made by the KMZ factory near Moscow. During the war, the KMZ factory had played an important role in the production of optical instruments for the Red Army, among other things. It was a strange thing that two nearly identical cameras were produced simultaneously in such a centrally controlled state. But the idea was that the Zorki, the camera made by KMZ, was for export, while the Fed was more for the internal market.

Fake Leica's

The Fed 1 looked very much like the Leica II. However many call the Fed cruder. There are indeed a number of optical differences that distinguish the Fed from the Leica. For example, the rangefinder cam is pointed and not circular like in Leicas, the shutter release buttons and search windows look a little different and real Leicas have instructions for loading the film printed onto the inner surface of the base plate. However, the cameras are so similar that Feds and also Industar lenses could be provided with Leica and Elmar inscriptions and sold as very special Leica camera's . Often these Fed's are sold as old Wehrmacht Leicas, because these Leica's are very pricy on the second hand market. If someone looks into it a bit more, it is not difficult to see  these are not Leicas. In addition, some specimens are so extremely pimped that they hurt your eyes.  But prices of the nicer ones are certainly going up. While you can buy a good Fed I for around 100 euro the fake Leica's are being sold for 250 euro and sometimes more.

This old Fed I's but the same goed for Fed II and III's are not bad cameras you have to avoid. The Feds in my collection from that era all work without a hitch and most likely without ever having had a CLA service. That cannot be said of the Leicas. Especially the lubricants used by Leica deteriorate strongly and have to be replaced by modern lubricants at some point. According to a camera repairman, this was because Leica used more natural-based agents, while the Russians used more industrial chemical agents. Another point might be that as far as the Feds are concerned, only the good ones have survived, and the bad ones have simply been thrown away. An almost Darwinian survival of the fittest. A 'bad' Leica was much less common due to the extreme quality controls and if there was a bad one, it was sent back by the owner to be repaired. You don't throw away a Leica.

Fed 2

Fed 2

Production of the first Fed model stopped in 1955 when the camera was succeeded by the Fed 2. The Fed 2 was a much improved version and can no longer be called a copy of the Leica. Loading film was made a lot easier by replacing loading by removing the bottom plate by removing the entire back. A system that was used much earlier in the Contax and Kiev cameras. It makes loading film much easier and faster, although sliding the back in place is not always easy either. An even more important improvement was that in the Fed 2 the rangefinder window was combined with the viewfinder window. You could now focus and compose in the same window. A system that Contax already used in its models before the war. This of course was a huge improvement in ease of use. Another major improvement was an extension of the rangefinder base to 67mm. The longer the base of the rangefinder, that is the distance between the two rangefinder windows on the front of the camera, the more accurate the focus can be.

  • Fed 2 with a Industar 26m f=5cm 1:2.8

  • The serial number of this is 548199. So probably produced in 1954.